Politics & Government

Feds to close civil rights investigation after Wake schools reduce student suspensions

The federal government has agreed to close its long-running investigation into how the Wake County school system handles school discipline, following changes that have reduced how many students are suspended.

In 2010, the state NAACP and several other groups filed a federal civil rights complaint accusing the Wake school system of discrimination because of how black students are suspended at such high rates compared to their share of the student population.

In a voluntary settlement announced Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has agreed to close the case by 2021 if the district continues with the changes it has adopted since the investigation began and make further revisions.

“We are pleased to reach an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights in these areas and look forward to continued improvement in suspension rates,” school board chairwoman Monika Johnston-Hostler said in a written statement. “We are grateful OCR recognized the work already underway and the district’s efforts to ensure future progress.”

In the 2016-17 school year, African-American students accounted for 60 percent of Wake’s suspensions while only representing 23.5 percent of the total enrollment. But the number of out-of-school suspensions in Wake dropped 25 percent between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years, even as enrollment went up 9 percent.

The settlement agreement shows that federal investigators recognized Wake for changes such as:

Multiple changes to the district’s discipline policies that have resulted in a sharp decrease in suspensions.

Creation of an Office of Equity Affairs to develop equity plans.

Expansion of peer mediation and “restorative justice circles” as alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.

As part of the settlement, investigators made no findings that the district violated any laws. To close the investigation, Wake will need to make some additional changes in the next two years, including:

Revisions to four disciplinary rules regarding “noncompliance,” “disrespect,” “inappropriate language” and “disruptive behavior” in the Student Code of Conduct to make them clearer, more objective, and less susceptible to implicit bias.

Consideration of feedback from staff, students, parents and community groups on fair and equitable discipline practices;

Annual self-evaluations of the effectiveness of the district’s effort to ensure non-discriminatory discipline practices.

School officials also announced Tuesday that the Office For Civil Rights is closing its investigation into a complaint filed in 2010 about Wake removing socioeconomic diversity as a factor in its student assignment policy. The change was made by the board’s former Republican majority to try to move to a greater use of neighborhood schools.

Democrats later regained the majority on the school board and restored diversity as a part of the assignment policy. But the district buses fewer students for diversity than in 2010.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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